Belfast Man who was instrumental in the foundation of the MFA

Belfast Man who was instrumental in the foundation of the MFA

English referee Harry Nattrass greets rival captains, Jimmy Dunne (Irish Free State), left, and Stefan Biro (Hungary) before the historic 2-2 friendly at The Mardyke on Sunday, March 19th 1939

THE death of Frank Gilligan from Bishopstown back in 2015 was understandably heartbreaking for his son John and daughters Oonagh, Eva, Maeve and Pamela having come shortly after the passing of their beloved mother.

Among Frank’s possessions was a medal presented to his father and bearing the inscription on one side, J.F. Gilligan – Chairman Season 1922-23 and on the other MFA Senior Challenge Cup. 

John in turn offered the medal to Oonagh’s husband Rodney Higgins in appreciation for the friendship, care and compassion he had shown to his late father. 

Rodney, a Biomedical Engineer at Cork University Hospital, was immediately struck to discover that Joe was the first chairman of the MFA, where his own father Dick played with Glasheen in the Munster Senior League, having previously played with Evergreen United and Cork Celtic in the League of Ireland.

Joseph Francis Gilligan was born in Belfast in 1889. 

Little is known of his background, other than he received a full secondary education while playing football with Belfast Celtic Stollers, the second string of the famous Belfast Celtic. 

While happy to stay at this level, he became increasingly interested in the organisational side of the game like his compatriot from the same city, John M. McAlery. 

McAlery is credited with helping to establish the Irish Football Association (IFA) in 1880 after receiving a copy of the rules of the game from the Scottish FA while on his honeymoon.

Members of the MFA pictured at an AGM in the Imperial Hotel. From left, Pat O'Brien (assist. secretary), J.F. Gilligan (president), Mossie Linnane (chairman), Donie Forde (secretary) and Tom Keogh (treasurer)
Members of the MFA pictured at an AGM in the Imperial Hotel. From left, Pat O'Brien (assist. secretary), J.F. Gilligan (president), Mossie Linnane (chairman), Donie Forde (secretary) and Tom Keogh (treasurer)

Joe trained as a tea taster and was successful in applying for a position as a buyer and taster with the famous Dwyer's family business on Washington Street in 1920, where he witnessed the burning of the city shortly after his arrival. 

He attended the inaugural meeting of the MFA at Desmond’s Hotel, ( now Counihan’s ), on Pembroke Street in the early spring of 1922 along with a small band of enthusiasts wishing to breath life back into the game following the War of Independence and the split with the IFA, who had governed football north and south at the turn of the century.

Joe was accompanied at that historic first Council meeting by Ted Hickey, W. Bernini, who was elected Hon. Secretary, Mr. Harry Buckle and Mr. T.P. Doyle. 

He immediately impressed his peers with his organizational ability to be unanimously elected the council’s first chairman. 

He set about his duties by arranging a collection from the floor to help in the purchase of a ground at Beaumont while he himself paid for the hire of the meeting room. 

The fledging association had plenty of obstacles to contend with, not least from the GAA whose crusade to drive the first Munster Association to extinction continued to restrict the development of the game in the south.

Undeterred, the first gate at Beaumont yielded seven shillings and nine pence with Mr. Gilligan enthusiastically remarking that ‘we have turned the corner, gentlemen’, following the first £1 gate taken at the venue. 

He married Ellen (Lily) O’Sullivan in 1925 and they first lived briefly on Summerhill North before moving to no. 30, St. Patrick’s Hill. 

They went on to raise their family in the landmark house with the big monkey puzzle tree in the garden across from the entrance to UCC on College Road.

On October 3rd at the Council’s offices on 26, Grand Parade, Joe was presented with a handsome illuminated address and a sweet of furniture by his colleagues on the MFA as a token of appreciation for his four years service as chairman and to mark the occasion of his wedding. Mr. T. Doyle said ‘it gave him great pleasure to pay tribute to one of the finest sportsmen any body of men could wish to be associated with.’ 

The esteem in which he was held along with his huge contribution to the game was reflected in an invitation he received to accompany the Irish Free State team to play Italy in Turin in the first international fixture to be undertaken by the Football Association of the Irish Free State on Sunday, March 21st 1926. 

The party set out from Kingstown, modern day Dun Laoghaire, for the three day trip to Italy on an adventure full of optimism following the League of Ireland’s recent win over the Irish League. 

However, the Italian’s triumphed three-nil at the Montovelodromo courtesy of goals from Baloncieri , Magnozzi and Bernardini in an Irish team containing three Fordsons’ stalwarts – Frank Brady, Jack McCarthy and James ‘Sally’ Connolly.

His was instrumental in persuading the Football Association to play the friendly international with the 1938 World Cup runners-up Hungary at The Mardyke on Sunday, March 19th 1939. 

He worked hard in the negotiations to include local hero Owen Madden, then with Birmingham City, in the starting line-up to boost the crowd numbers. He also saw the opportunity in bringing an attractive international fixture to Cork where football at the time was at a low ebb.

Joe retained a life long interest in his favourite sport and before he died he was overjoyed to be made Life President of the MFA. 

The medal he received one hundred ago shines brighter today than ever before as it continues a rich heritage reflected in the administrative abilities of men like Fred Hickey, Mick Mooney, Joe McCrumm, Tom Keogh, Donie Forde, Pat O’Brien, Jack Creedon, Jim Murphy, Tony Murphy and John Finnegan.

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